Weaver of Song

Kuana Torres Kahele’s art is a tapestry made from many strands of Hawaiian culture
Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Graceful, arching coconut palm fronds twice the size of an average man are being dragged, sideways, through the parking lot and into the lobby of Hilo’s Palace Theater. They fall to the floor with a crunch as guests tiptoe around them to welcome the teacher of today’s lei-making class: musician and kumu hula (hula teacher) Kuana Torres Kahele.

Students are frozen to their seats with anticipation. “I’m so excited,” Rosalei Quinting-Androyna whispers to a woman she’s just met, Joan Moore. The two women have already discovered things in common: Both were late to Kahele’s first class last year, and both showed up early today to snag a front-and-center seat.

Kahele holds one of the green fronds by its stem. He grabs the frond’s hard midrib and begins to pull away the long leaves, stripping an entire frond in a matter of minutes. Dropping a handful of leaves in front of each student, Kahele starts today’s project. He supplies each student with a six-inch needle and a tangle of waxed dental floss.

“You make one of these lei lau niu [coconut leaf] and it will last forever,” Kahele explains. “You can keep it green, or you can let it dry and it will turn brown. When I make these lei, I make three strands, dry them different ways—in the freezer, in the sunlight, in the house—and I weave them together. Every time I make it, one of my friends will steal ’um.”

Singer, composer, hula dancer and master lei maker Kuana Torres Kahele is a bridge between ancient Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture today. Kahele learned lei making from his grandmother and from the oldest living resident of Ni‘ihau, Ane Kelley Kanahele.

Part performer, part teacher, part cultural practitioner, Kahele is a bridge between ancient Hawai‘i and Hawaiian culture today. Being the go-to guy for Hawaiian craft tutorials, however, isn’t what he set out to do. In fact, Kahele spent the past twenty years building his music career, first as a member of the chart-topping Hawaiian music group Nā Palapalai and later as a solo music artist. He voiced the lead character Uku, a lovesick volcano, in the 2014 animated Pixar short film, “Lava,” inspiring the catchphrase, “I lava you.”

“The only thing I ever wanted to be was a musician,” says the Hilo native, now 40 years old. “That was from small-kid time. But I didn’t realize that being a Hawaiian musician would lead me down different paths. It was all part of this network of Hawaiian culture.”

Without meaning to, Kahele has woven various threads of Hawaiian tradition into his music and in so doing has become its ambassador, sharing music, hula, language and lei making worldwide. From Oakland to Osaka, Satellite Beach to Seattle, he shares what he knows much in the same way as he does in today’s class in Hilo: workshop by day, music at night. Last year in Kansas City, Missouri, he spent four days teaching Hawaiian instrument making, lei making and hula. He has five locations of his Hawaiian culture school in Japan, Ka Hale Ikena o Kuana, and teaches there monthly. Sometimes his lessons include playing the ‘ukulele or teaching the intricate work of stringing tiny pūpū (Ni‘ihau shells), something he learned from Ni‘ihau’s oldest living resident and artisan, Ane Kelley Kanahele.

Kahele happened upon this particular path when his partner, Marc Turner, posted a video on social media of Kahele making a lei for himself. It logged more than fifty thousand views overnight. Requests for more how-to videos inspired Kahele to produce two DVDs teaching lei making; a third is in the works. The tutorials showcase traditional styles of weaving lei known to few but a handful of master lei makers. “The point is to get people to make lei no matter where they are in the world,” says Kahele. “Some people live in places where there is no greenery at all. But you can still go to Safeway and get flowers.”

And if you’ve got your store-bought flowers but nothing to string them? You can use dental floss, or how about a trash bag? “Everyone seems to like the trash-bag tutorial the best,” says Kahele of one lei featured on his DVD. “It’s actually an old hula dancer’s secret.”

Kahele learned that hula hack from a fellow dancer while performing in Las Vegas years ago with kumu hula Johnny Lum Ho’s Hālau o ka Ua Kani Lehua. “You are always in charge of your own adornments when you travel, but I was young, so I didn’t wrap them right and they died,” Kahele recalls. “I thought, ‘If Uncle Johnny finds out, I’ll never hear the end of it.’ So my hula sister said, ‘We will just make another.’ I said, ‘How are we going to do that? There’s no ti leaf up here!’” She showed Kahele how to take a trash bag and construction paper and cut leaf shapes to braid in with the trash bag. No one was the wiser.

Kahele joined Lum Ho’s award-winning Hilo hālau hula at age 12. He danced on the line for years until one day Lum Ho overheard him singing. The next week, he was asked to sing with the hālau band, and that same year he performed with the band for the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition. “Until then I was just a home garage-style singer,” he says. “I never had music lessons. My grandmother came from a very musical family filled with musicians and hula dancers, but it was all kept in the ‘ohana.”

Kahele talks story with students in one of his popular lei-making classes in Hilo. Because not everyone can attend classes, Kahele is producing a series of DVDs, the third of which is currently in the works.

Kahele recalls the moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life. His grandmother, Lulu Kelohilani Kahele, says he shouldn’t remember it at all because he was just two years old. At a party in Hilo, Kahele was playing with other kids outside when he heard someone singing. “It was so striking, it stopped me in my tracks,” he remembers. “It was super high; the guy was singing like a lady! Whatever it was called, that’s what I wanted to do. I was an adult when I asked my grandmother about that memory. She said it was her father, a falsetto singer, who was singing.” Kahele’s grandmother would become his greatest cultural teacher and also his hānai[adoptive] mother. “I never went to school for Hawaiian language or music. She taught me what I know,” he says. “She came from a real bad time in Hawaiian history, when everything Hawaiian was frowned upon, so she hadn’t used the language since her parents died. She never saw any value in it, I guess, until I was born.”

Kahele was the firstborn boy of five children, but his grandmother taught only him the language and the traditions of their culture. “I never asked her why. She had a talent for making all us kids feel loved, even though we knew I was the favorite,” he jokes. His grandmother started with simple things, like lei making, then taught him place-names and mo‘olelo (stories). By the end of her life, she spoke to Kahele only in Hawaiian. And her teaching style, he recalls, was unusual but effective. “For example, if she wanted me to learn to make lei, she would leave little bread crumbs. She would do just enough to pique my interest. And once I got interested, she’d teach a little more. She’d never make the whole lei at once. I’d ask her a question and she’d say, ‘Kulikuli!’ telling me to be quiet. But she’d ask me to come help her pick the flowers. And later she’d show me how to hold the lei. She’d do it in increments and let me figure things out myself so it would be pa‘a [secure] in my mind.”

“The point is to get people to make lei no matter where they are in the world,” says Kahele of the DVD series. “Some people live in places where there is no greenery at all. But you can still go to Safeway and get flowers.”

For Kahele, hula and music are inseparable. Dancers often accompany him in concert. “Hula is one of the most important components of mele [song] because it’s the physical manifestation of the story you are conveying,” he explains. “The story is never fully complete until it’s set to motion.”

After embarking on his solo career, he was inspired to create an album for each of the Hawaiian islands, celebrating the people, history and landscape of each place and intended for hula. Kahele started with Hawai‘i Island, followed by Ni‘ihau, Maui, Kaua‘i, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i and finally O‘ahu. “There aren’t enough haku mele [composers] today,” he says. “You can only listen to or dance to the same recycled songs so many times.”

Kahele explored each island with the help of kama‘āina, who shared stories and took him to places that aren’t often visited. Many times he was so inspired that he wrote a song then and there. “It’s kind of like plugging myself into the ‘āina [land],” he explains. Like the day his friend Kepā Maly, president of the Lāna‘i Culture & Heritage Center, took him to a valley called Maunalei. Kahele noticed how the mist was pouring over the hills and down into the valley. He picked up his ‘ukulele and started strumming. With the melody unfolding, before long words started to come. “Within five minutes I had written four verses,” he says.

Kahele is as prolific as a composer as he is as a lei maker, having written more than a hundred songs in the past four years. Often the songs come to him because of the mana (power) of a place. “The feeling just comes to me,” he says. “I speak the place-name, and I think it rekindles its energy.”

The first day Maly took Kahele around Lāna‘i, he wrote six songs. “He’s more than just someone talented with instrumentation or with a good voice,” says Maly. “I took Kuana to places on this island that were storied, sacred landscapes, whose names I thought should be spoken again and known. Kuana shows us that we can take the stories of traditional times and breathe new life into them. Lāna‘i has often been overlooked by composers, but now, because of Kuana’s passion for the ‘āina, we will have this new lei—this new adornment—for Hawai‘i.”

Kahele has blazed through seven albums in just four years, creating more than one hundred new compositions. The challenge was in fitting the whole story into a short song. “I only have four or five verses, so you have to take the gist, or you do like my grandmother did and leave bread crumbs—a trail that leads to that story. When the listener picks up on that trail,” he says, “it invites them to see more.”

With needle in hand, Kahele continues his instruction, teaching students how to make the slender half-inch strips of lau niu. For the next twenty minutes, there is nothing but the sound of needles ripping leaves.

Kahele and bandmates Punahele Moleta and Ioane Burns during a sound check at the Palace Theater in Hilo.

Every once in a while, the students look over at what the person next to them is doing, just to compare. As with most lei making, it’s the prep that takes the longest. But the fine work of stringing the lau niu leaves no time for chatter. Quinting-Androyna’s glasses are all the way down on the tip of her nose. When I pass by her table, she stops briefly to assess. “A little uneven,” she says. Kahele is making his own lei, hands working quickly in synchronized dance: loop, twist, loop, twist, pull. Between stringing he walks the room, offering helpful tips and checking the students’ progress, “Hold the needle lightly—just a little twist to help the lau niu fan out. And don’t compact the leaves; slide them down until they’re just holding hands. If you leave the wispy ends of the leaf hanging, I think it adds character.”

After an intense two hours, people look up from their lei. Some are smiling at their creation; a few are frowning and muttering about having to try again. But Kahele says that things need not be so rigid; there is space within these traditions for expression. “You are the artist,” he says. “You design it how you like. Sky’s the limit.” HH